Last Day Revisited: The Opioid Crisis

2: Stefano’s Last Day

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[0:31] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: July 2017. My mother had recently discovered podcasts, and her appetite for them was insatiable. Every other day, she was basically texting me for recommendations. So, I told her about a show called Terrible, Thanks for Asking, hosted by Nora McInerny. Within the span of a month, Nora lost her husband to brain cancer and her father and then she had a miscarriage. And then she made a podcast about it. So, I knew this would be right up my mother’s alley because the show features people going through the worst times in their lives, and my mom is super into that sort of depressing content. 


[1:20] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: So she listens, falls in love with the show, and unbeknownst to me, writes in to say that she’s got a story. She tells them about my brother Harris and his struggles with addiction and how he died and how her life is essentially a pile of rotten garbage now.  They of course eat it up because it is a very, very, very sad story. And, also maybe because he was sort of a famous, beloved comedian, in addition to being my brother. Regardless, whatever reason, it doesn’t matter, they invite her to come on the show. And this is where she emails me to tell me she’s going on Terrible Thanks For Asking and to also tell me that I have to go on with her. I genuinely have no desire to do this, but the aggravation of guilt by my mother is greater than the aggravation of going on a podcast, so… We go on the show. It airs Sep 11, 2017. Here’s my mom and me, talking to Nora. Nora’s the one cracking up in the background.


[2:31] Maureen Wittels: I need um a lot of hugs. I’m a hugger now, I just want to hug people. Perfect strangers. I need that. I need that. Uh It’s my addiction now. And um–


[2:45] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: You just said that you were addicted to hugs… [Everyone cracking up] I just want to, I just want to exclamation mark that statement.


Maureen Witels: I think I am, um yeah, and uh…


Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Get this woman into rehab… [cracking up] 


[3:02] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Five months later, a woman named Jess, one thousand miles away in Minneapolis, Minn., was bracing herself for a very shitty day. It was her birthday. It was cold. And it was shitty because her brother, Stefano, had died a few months earlier of a fentanyl overdose. 


[3:25] Jessica Cordova Kramer: So my brother Stefano Cordova Jr. died um on Monday October 23rd in 2017. And it’s the worst fucking thing that ever happened. And I was in a total grief fog, yadda yada yada. Uh-


[3:42] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Grief fog, that’s a good… 


Jessica Cordova Kramer: A grief fog, yeah.


[3:45] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: That’s a good way to describe it. That’s Jess, obviously, talking to me. Jess was a regular listener to TTFA, as it’s known, and knew there was an episode about a sister who lost her brother to an overdose. And honestly, what could be more celebratory than that? So she saved the episode for this very hard day, popped in her headphones, and went for a walk. 


[4:11] Jessica Cordova Kramer: So I went for a walk in February in Minneapolis. Sometimes it’s so cold it doesn’t really snow, and it was like that gray bone cold and I bundled up and I went outside. And it I swear to God it was the first time I felt joy. It was the joy of like someone else. This is just life, like, people die and sometimes your brother dies of a heroin overdose. And you can sit in the studio with your mom and, like, be on the other side of going through the shitstorm that I was in and laugh again and celebrate that person, in your case Harris. So I just had this moment of like, OK, like, I think I can live through this, like, this is not just me it just it just didn’t happen to just me, it happened to someone else.


[4:57] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: After she listened, Jess reached out to the stranger in her ears. (Me. It was me. I’m the stranger.) She told me all about her brother, Stefano, and talking to Jess was like connecting with an old friend. Because we are members of the shittiest club. It’s not even that exclusive anymore. Lots of people have joined. 70,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2017, and they all have people who loved them. Love them, right now. Currently love them. Still love them. By the way, I’m Stephanie Wittels Wachs, and this is Last Day. Our club may not have tote bags, which sucks. But Jess thought maybe we could have a podcast, with me, as the host. Not just for us, these two club members, but for the people who have escaped membership too. An idea that I mentioned to my mom. 


[6:11] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: And she was like “Well why wouldn’t I host it?”


Jessica Cordova Kramer: She should! You’re fired and we’re bringing your mom in.


[6:19] Stephanie Wittels Wachs:  I was like. literally. I was like, What the uh I don’t know. I could name a few reasons but like what. Rude. You know. It was so like on brand. Turns out, my mom wasn’t available, so here I am. Sorry. Or, you’re welcome. And it turns out, an hour-long podcast of Irish keening, and the sound of rending of garments, just isn’t that fun to listen to. So, instead, we are looking at the opioid crisis through the lens of one person’s last day. The last day of Stefano Cordova Junior. Jess’ baby brother.


[7:02] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: October 23, 2017. This is where the day started. 11 Gorham Street in Allston, Massachusetts. Just next door to Boston. It was mild for October, mid fifties as the sun came up. Stef got up early that morning, around 6. Since childhood, he’d been an early riser. He grew up on Long Island, him, his parents, and Jess. 


[7:30] Jessica Cordova Kramer: My dad is a chef and we we didn’t grow up having a ton of money but we went to like every best restaurant in all of New York and um we went to the Windows of the World at the World Trade Center. And it had these windows that kind of jutted outward toward the city. And it was his first birthday. Um I remember looking over and he was just hovering against the window his whole body planted. Looking down at the city from like what I think is like one hundred and twenty stories up.


[7:58] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Gave him a major fear of heights – even as an adult, he couldn’t stand on an elevated train platform. He’d literally wait in the stairwell til the train came. Not a risk taker, Jess says. Growing up, he was a little insecure, a little arrogant. Here’s Stefano, age 26. 

[8:19] Stefano Cordova, Jr: This is my own personal shaved head job. July 16 2009. It’s a new day, it’s a fresh day. Probably shouldn’t have shaved it so much but eh it feels good. It’s definitely uneven all over the place but I’m still handsome, right? Check out that shnozzole. 


[8:40] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Schnozzole or no, he was popular with the ladies. Sometimes too popular.


[8:47] Jessica Cordova Kramer: We were home for the weekend and it was Christmas Eve and he brought a girlfriend to Christmas Eve. And then he brought a different girl to Christmas Day and I called the second girl the first girl’s name and she gave him a look and he gave me a look and I was like, Well for fuck’s sake I mean how the hell am I supposed to keep this shit straight? 


[9:09] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: 2017, though, he was all grown. 34 years old, married. October 23 was one of those fall days in New England where it’s sunny and crisp. I like to think he woke up to sunlight, snuggled his cat, Crystal. He loved that cat. He liked to hit the gym before work, although he didn’t that day. Maybe he noodled a little on his guitar – he was good. <guitar plays> 9 or so, he walked up the street to Starbucks with his wife Paige.


[9:53] Paige: We just ordered from the app and then like walked down. It was like not even a block away just like walked down got a coffee and um walked back. But yeah like he was like joking and laughing and whatever. He was like actually in a good mood that morning.


[10:09] Stephanie Wittels Wachs:  Steph and Paige had met two years earlier, 


[10:13] Paige: We met at um like a drug and alcohol rehab program. 


[10:20] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: At the time, Paige struggled with alcohol.


Paige: He was in the group with me and he was like making fun of everyone. It was like really hilarious. Cause there was like some weird people there. 


[10:32] Jessica Cordova Kramer: Yeah, What. Tell me. Do you remember who he made fun of?


Paige: I don’t know. Probably like the teacher or something. 


[10:39] Jessica Cordova Kramer: Uh huh. Like under his breath or like pretty outward?


Paige: No, like to her face.


Jessica Cordova Kramer: That’s classic.


Paige:  Yeah. 


[10:47] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: That’s Jess and Paige.


Paige: I just thought he was fun to hang out with and um, I liked being around him. 


Jessica Cordova Kramer: Did you have a sense of like, I think I want to marry this guy, at any point? 


[10:58] Paige: Um… It didn’t like necessarily cross my mind. Like it was mostly his idea because um he is like a little bit older than me so I wasn’t really thinking about it at that point.  But like once he said that, I like wanted to after that. Yeah. 


Jessica Cordova Kramer: How’d he bring it up? Do you remember?


Paige: Um yeah, I remember he would just say, um, like, I want to marry you.  


[11:25] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Stefano was like that. Knew what he wanted, didn’t want to wait for it. Sometimes impatient, sometimes impulsive. Decisive. He and Paige had their wedding in May of 2017. 


[11:40] Jessica Cordova Kramer: The wedding was fabulous food-wise. And food is really important to my family and we had family coming in from Italy, too, so you gotta pull out all the stops. And then around midnight they served sliders and french fries and like a whole second meal. And I just remember Stefano turning to me at one point and being like, ‘it’s perfect.’ And he was so happy. 


[12:05] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: After the wedding, Stefano and Paige moved from the suburbs into the city. A younger, cooler neighborhood, closer to his job. Stef worked at a company called Midaxo, they sell mergers & acquisition software. Here’s Stefano, in a company webinar.


[12:22] Stefano Cordova, Jr.: And this particular use case with the VDR plus combines VDR functionality with the traditional Midaxo process management platform so we’re expanding our use case opportunities towards divestments, carve outs, fundraising and other due diligence projects so that’s what we’re focused on for this particular webinar. 


[12:33] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: It’s basically Charlie Brown adult voice to me, but apparently he was really good at it. He’d helped to start the US office around 2015, and had gotten a promotion that he was pretty psyched about that February. To what, exactly, is still a matter of some debate.


[12:49] Jessica Cordova Kramer:  He was promoted to director of strategic partnerships. That was what was on his business card.


Paige: Oh.


Jessica Cordova Kramer: I mean he had like 40 business cards 


Paige: He had a lot of business cards. 


Jessica Cordova Kramer:  Yeah. 


[12:58] Paige: And then he said he could write whatever he wanted on them, well like in one said like “Director of ” Like what Americas? Like South America too? He’s like ‘Yeah technically.’


[13:12] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Jennifer Linehan was his boss at Midaxo. 


Jennifer Linehan: He liked to make people laugh. He wasn’t enemies with anybody. 


[13:19] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: That’s kind of rare, in sales. People get a salary, but commission is a big part of the compensation, and that all depends on closing a deal. Think Glengarry Glenn Ross. By all accounts, Stefano was intense. He was Alec Baldwin sometimes, Jess says he loved that movie. But he wasn’t an asshole about it. 


[13:41] Jennifer LInehan: When somebody new started like he was the first person to say ‘hey if you want to like work these leads go ahead.’ Where in a normal sales environment sales people are like hoarders. But I just feel like he was… kind.


Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Stef had kind of a bro-ey schtick, Jennifer says. Easy breezy. 


[14:02] Jennifer Linehan: But with that said, like, I feel like he had two sides to him. Like on one hand, he was so smart. But like in an unassuming way, like I feel like when you first meet him you’re not like oh this guy’s sharp, right? I don’t know maybe it’s like the Long Island in him and like he kind of comes off as unpolished maybe a little bit. And then, when I was getting to know him. He was training me basically how to do the job, and I just remember getting off the phone and being like, OK, explain what you just said to that person. And he would explain it to me and I’m like, dumb it down one more notch like keep going one more notch, one more notch. So I just feel like he was like a walking, talking contradiction in that he was so sharp and so smart but like you would never know that on the surface because it was casual sort of Italian attitude. I don’t know.


[14:53] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Stef and Jennifer had their weekly one-on-one meeting the morning that he died. 


Jennifer Linehan: I don’t know if I should say this but I think there’s certain one-on-ones that you sort of dread going into. And then there’s the one-on-ones that you look forward to. And my one-on-ones with him I always looked forward to them. That day, I remember what he was wearing like he looked extra nice that day I think a customer was coming in to the office. And so like he looked extra professional and like had a suit on which normally we would wear like jeans and, you know, a polo. Yeah. So he looked very professional very cleaned up. You know, we sat down and he like seemed happy.  


[15:34] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: He brought up the possibility of a promotion. Even though it was maybe eight months since his last one. He was looking to the future, making plans.


[15:43] Jennifer Linehan: He was saying um you know, hey I think it’s time for another promotion or something like that. But he was like saying it half joking where I didn’t know if he was serious or if he was just doing it to get a rise out of me which he often did, you know. And so I just said, the next time we talk, I’d like you to present to me and really formalize what you’re thinking. And, that was it. 


[16:15] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: So Stef is at work, wearing his nice outfit, feeling good. Good meeting, caffeinated. And then at some point, he met up with his dealer, Flaco. What we know now is that he’d reached out to Flaco first thing in the morning. At 6:46 a.m. He wrote, and I’m quoting from his texts here, “Bro, I might need one last delivery to work.” When his wife Paige says that he was in a good mood that morning, when Jennifer says he seemed happy, it’s hard for me not to wonder if that’s because he already had a plan to get high that day. (PAUSE) But I’d like to think he was just happy. 


[19:27] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: The next part of the day is mostly unknown. I tried calling Flaco, but the number’s no longer in service. We know he got an Uber or a ride home. He walked up the cement steps of his apartment building, up to his second-floor apartment. We think Flaco or someone came there or came to his office, and brought him heroin, which ended up being 100% fentanyl. Paige was at work. She’d been working as a counselor with psychiatric patients. And like you do, she’d sent Stef a couple texts in the afternoon, just checking in. No answer. Another text. No answer. 


[20:15] Paige: Before I came home like an hour or so before I was supposed to leave I was like trying to call him trying to text him like he wasn’t um responding, you know. It was probably like nine or 10 or so like cause I hadn’t heard from him all day which was like sort of weird. But then again like it’s not like completely unheard of and especially you know if he had been using drugs like I didn’t know what he was doing. That’s when I started to get the feeling that something might be wrong. 


[20:50] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Stefano had been trying to get sober for a while. He’d been getting injections of a drug called Vivitrol. It’s an inhibitor – it basically stops you from feeling the high if you use opioids. Before the Vivitrol, Stefano had tried in-patient treatment, he tried out-patient, tried suboxone and other medically-assisted ways to stay clean.  He’d been struggling with his addiction for ten years. His family thinks it started with recreational drugs in high school and college. Maybe Adderol, maybe other stuff. Definitely pot. And they think around 2009, he started on prescription drugs, painkillers. He was working as a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company. Jess found out in 2009, when she had to get the State Department to pull him out of a trip to China with his MBA program at Hofstra. He called their mom panicking from the top of a skyscraper in Guangzhou. Here’s their mom, Doreen.


[21:50] Doreen Cordova: I think at that point he was using oxy and he called me and he was on the on a balcony and said ‘Mom, I can’t move I just can’t move and I can’t talk and I don’t, I’m afraid and I don’t want you to get off the phone and um and I don’t want you to tell anyone.’ 


[22:14] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Obviously she DID tell someone – Jess. And together they got him home. No one knew it at the time, but he was in withdrawal from prescription opioids. When he got back, they did the full-on cable TV-style intervention. Then rehab. He checked himself out after a day. Then relapsed. More rehab. Another relapse, more rehab. Relapse. His wedding Jess mentioned? He used that day, although she didn’t know it at the time.


[20:55] Jessica Cordova Kramer: Did you enjoy the wedding?


Paige: Yeah it was really fun. Um, it was a good time. 


Jessica Cordova Kramer: Was he, do you think he was using heroin at your wedding?


Paige: Before, yes. 


Jessica Cordova Kramer: Like the like hours before or like days before? 


Paige: Like an hour before. Probably. 


[23:10] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: He’d overdosed several times already. 


Paige: You know like usually I would be home um but like just like not paying attention, doing something else like I remember one time I was doing my hair in my bedroom and then I came in the kitchen he was just like laying on the floor and like I could see that his lips were kind of blue. So I just like got the Narcan. 


[23:24] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: That’s a nasal spray to revive people who are overdosing. 


Paige: And then he woke up and he was mad because um the Narcan makes you feel like crap. And you know it takes away the uh drugs. So he was mad but I was like trying to explain to him like I only did it because um like I could tell that your breathing was not there anymore. Like your lips are blue. So like he kind of understood at that point. But, like, it’s still far from I think what he would consider rock bottom because like nothing in his life really changed. Like he would just wake up the next day and like go back to work and everything would be fine. 


[24:19] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: But in October of 2017, he’d been on Vivitrol for a few months. He was working with an outpatient program in Boston, getting the shot. That’s what people call it, being on the shot. It’s supposed to last for 30 days. But for some people it lasts 28. Others 32. It just depends. And that October day, he was due for a new shot. He’d been due. And he’d been trying to get it. But the treatment center wouldn’t give it to him. The clinic requires patients to attend therapy sessions in order to get the shot. They said he’d missed his therapy sessions. He said he was getting therapy elsewhere; they said it had to be their program. By missing their sessions, he’d essentially flunked out of treatment. And so they wouldn’t give him the shot. We asked the clinic to talk to us for this podcast. But they declined. On the day he died, Stefano was still trying to get his Vivitrol. In fact, he’d actually told Flaco, the dealer, that he wouldn’t be hearing from him again. “Last time I’ll ever ask for this, I promise,” Stefano texted Flaco that morning. “I get the shot on Wednesday.” Two days later. But that day, that Monday, he COULD get high. He’d feel the high. But you know, he’d been high before. A lot, actually. So when Paige couldn’t get him on the phone, she wasn’t panicked. She was worried. 


[25:58] Paige: And so like I was kind of just like preparing myself, just kind of thinking in the back of my head like I wonder what I’m going to find. But like it’s probably nothing. He’s probably just like asleep or like on drugs then he like lost track of this phone or like I kind of just had a feeling that he was on drugs anyways because I don’t know, but, like, obviously I didn’t think he would um be dead.


[26:28] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: She drove home around 10 pm. Up the cement steps, up to their second-floor apartment. 


[26:36] Paige: So then I walked in. I looked down the hall and I just saw like my cat sitting up on the bed and um just like looking at me and I didn’t see like him anywhere and then um the bathroom door was locked. So like I was knocking on the door and um he wasn’t answering. Um, and then so I got like a bobby pin to open the lock. And um his body was like pushed up against the door so I couldn’t get in. So like I had to like push really really hard. And um then I got in and I saw him. So I just called 9 1 1. 


[27:24] Jessica Cordova Kramer: Could you tell he was dead?


[27:26] Paige: Yeah. But like I was still hoping that maybe he wasn’t for some reason. 


Jessica Cordova Kramer: Yeah. So what did you do? Did you just have to stand there?


Paige: I had to like do CPR. But like it was like just awful. It was awful because like he was like already stiff. 


[27:47] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Paige didn’t know this then, but Stefano hadn’t shot heroin that day. According to the autopsy report, Stefano had Benzodiazepines, Gabapentin, and fentanyl in his system. Benzodiazepines, like valium for example, are typically used to treat anxiety, alcohol withdrawal, seizures. It calms the brain and nerves. Gapapentin treats neuropathic pain, or nerve pain, and is sometimes prescribed to ease detox. And Fentanyl? It’s like heroin on steroids. It’s a synthetic opioid, it is cheap and it is easy to transport and it is widely available and it is incredibly lethal. 


[28:32] Paige: I don’t even think like he knows it’s fentanyl because like even if it’s fentanyl, it’s still called heroin on the street. 


Stephanie Wittels Wachs: That slip into the present tense kinda destroys me. 


[28:44] Paige: I think that he knew that there’s definitely fentanyl mixed in because like at that time and still now like almost I think all street heroin has fentanyl in it. But like you know that’s the problem. Like you don’t know how much is in it and we had talked about it before and like he knew that. And you know I I don’t know though. I just think that the desire to um use is like shading all rational decision making. 


[29:26] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: The 911 operator tells Paige to keep doing CPR until the EMTs arrive. 


Paige: So then yeah, I just like kept doing it until the um people came, the EMTs came and then they, they walked in and they were just like so rude they were just like, ‘Yeah I don’t see anything.’ Like they don’t see any breath. 


[29:49] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Paige called her mom. 


Paige: We had to wait for um the medical examiner to come. Um, well my mom was here at this point.  She came and then after they came and got him um, we just um went home.

[30:08] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: And then Stefano, his body, went to the morgue. His day, that day, that last day, it ended here. Jess visited the morgue this spring.


[30:25] Jessica Cordova Kramer: So we’re at 720 Albany Street in Boston. This is the morgue my brother’s body was taken to. Um, we got a chance to come down here the next day. Um, but they have a policy where you can’t view your person’s body so they take a picture of their face and they bring you into a room and you just get to look at their face. Um, one of the things that happens when your person dies is they’re gone but their body is still here so this morgue is, is that little middle ground, um and it’s the most surreal part is like just wake up man, just wake up. 


[31:14] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I know you might be thinking that Stefano was just a junkie. I’ve gotten the same feedback about my brother Harris – that anyone who sticks a needle in their arm deserves to die. That he should have tried harder. That he should have just waited til Wednesday, to get that Vivitrol shot. And I am here to tell you that Stefano TRIED. His family, Jess, Paige, his mom, his dad – everyone tried. They did everything you’re supposed to do. Which doesn’t stop you from beating yourself up about it. 

[31:52] Jessica Cordova Kramer: After the person dies or the whole time after you find out they’re using this drug, um you try to what the fuck- how the fuck did this happen? And it does, you go all the way back to six years old, did I not talk to them enough? Did I? You know what was the one moment? Um. And I can probably pinpoint 20 moments that could’ve been the moment. None of them were probably the moment. I’m not my brother. I don’t know what on earth he was thinking when he decided this was this was, this was his next step in life. Uh. But I know lots of people who go through trauma and don’t end up using heroin and lots of people who don’t go through trauma and do um and I think for those of us left behind you’re constantly trying to find out, what could I have done? What could I have done differently?


[32:47] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: More on that, on the next episode of Last Day.


[32:54] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Last Day is a production of Lemonada Media. It’s produced by Justine Daum. Kat Aaron is our consulting producer. Jessica Cordova Kramer is our Executive Producer. Mix and sound design was done by Joe Plourde. Kegan Zema is our editor. Our music is by Hannis Brown. I’m Stephanie Wittels Wachs. See you next week.

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